Ladies and gentlemen, Kathleen Chalfant. Much else may be said, pro and con, concerning the production of Alexander Dinelaris’s Red Dog Howls (New York Theatre Workshop), but the main point is that it contains Kathleen Chalfant. Discussing her performance may make you feel like a patent-medicine salesman pitching a miracle ingredient. This bottle of formula, whatever else might be in it, includes Kathleen Chalfant, a tonic guaranteed effective for all theatergoers.
“Contains” is the correct word. Chalfant is not one of those outsize performers whose spirit seems to spill over the sides of a production. Her gifts glow with exactitude. Whatever boundaries the play sets, she stays within them, yet never seems hemmed in: In every role, her performance seems full and unrestrained, taking you to the very edge and sounding the very depth of the opportunities the play offers. Dinelaris has given her several gigantic opportunities: She seizes them gigantically, yet without any grandstanding or overdoing. Her performance’s discretion is as spectacular, and as complete, as its grandeur.
Red Dog Howls needs all the grandeur it can get. Not unworthy and not unserious, Dinelaris’s play wants to ask a genuinely troubling question about how human beings, in our time, have survived the historic acts of horror they were compelled to endure. The century that began with World War I, though probably no more brutal than previous chunks of human history, has in many ways been the most heinously able to think up vicious ways of tormenting people and making them suffer. The great artistic, scientific, and technological advances of modern times walk, in a long procession, hand in hand, with their evil parallels, the great atrocities. Human beings created both. That often-cited figure, the Nazi concentration camp guard who spent his off hours writing his doctoral dissertation on the humanism of Goethe, stands as one summation of our time’s contradictory potential.
Dinelaris proposes an alternative image. His heroine, Rose (Chalfant), is a 90-year-old survivor of the atrocity that now seems an admonitory prelude to the many which have followed: the Turkish genocide—Turks still, angrily, dispute the word—of the Armenians, in the throes of World War I. The focus here is not on Rose’s victimhood, but on the shocking act she has committed in order to ensure her son’s survival. Not revealed till the final scene, the act is indeed a shocker, and the fearsome cries that emerge from Chalfant when, as Rose, she’s finally compelled to retell the story, will go straight to the pit of most theatergoers’ stomachs. I haven’t felt so stabbed by the tragic truth of a performance in many years.
Yet difficulties remain. Rose’s act has led her to invest her family with a complicated and murky heritage. Dinelaris’s main character, who narrates the play, is Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso), a recently married young writer whose father’s death has revealed sudden questions about his ancestry—just as he learns that his wife, Gabriella (the charming Florencia Lozano), is expecting. The tense progress toward their child’s birth plays a key role in lighting the winding, overgrown trail that Michael, under the elderly Rose’s guidance, must trace back three generations, into a wholly alien culture and then into a deeply disquieting moral space, from which all conventional plus and minus signs have been removed.
The search process often feels contrived, as if Dinelaris had conceived the final scene and built the rest backward from it, somewhat inorganically. Narciso, a handsome and crisply effective actor, doesn’t seem to carry the burden of nameless sorrow that drives Michael’s search into the puzzling past. Some events, spawned out of Rose’s supposedly invincible strength and resource, seem to occur all too conveniently. Though Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction largely avoids missteps, Dinelaris’s script treads a distractingly wobbly line between sorrowing truth and sensationalist kitsch. Ultimately, it’s Chalfant, with her seamless authority of tone and her unfailing emotional clarity, who becomes the evening’s raison d’être. The questions about what we do, how we survive, why our world has turned out this way, are vested not in the text, but in the gravity of her voice, the pain in her eyes, the lambent completeness of her presence.